The Psychobiotic Revolution and Transformative Experience.

‘We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.’
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale.

Books can change you. They can change how you think, about relationships, about love, about toasting and grinding your own spices – all the important stuff. The most rewarding books, I think, are those which most give us pause for thought. Books with nothing to teach us are boring. We crave knowledge.

Lots of people read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale last year. It’s a book that has been a catalyst in a chain reaction leading to a dramatic shift of attitudes. Usually though, the changes made by books are relatively small and incremental. We gather ideas and opinions and slowly alter our way of being.

Atwood, Paul, Kimchi.
Paul, Atwood and a jar of fermented cabbage.

In her book, Transformative Experience, Philosopher L.A. Paul writes about the occasions in our lives when we face a life-changing  choice. You know, those times you review with hindsight and remark that you were a different person then. Becoming a mother is something many women feel is a transformative experience. Paul’s thesis is that you can’t know, before the transformation, who the new you will be after it. So, you can’t rationally choose to have a baby. You, the new mother, might feel completely differently about the whole idea to you who hasn’t had a baby.

Paul gives another great example. Imagine for a moment that I am outrageously attractive and charismatic, and a vampire. Imagine also that I like you and I offer you a one-time-only opportunity to become a vampire.  It will only hurt for a second and then you will be gorgeous and powerful, just like me. Vampires have that kind of sexy thing going on and there’s the promise of immortality of course so you might say yes. But, imagine then that you discover you can’t stand the taste of blood, can’t stomach even a slice of black pudding, and the biting thing is less erotic than advertised. You’ve made a terrible mistake. Or, then again, you might love it. You might ROCK as a vampire for all eternity. The thing is you can’t know ahead of the choice- it’s simply not possible. Becoming a vampire will teach you things that you can’t learn without becoming a vampire, and you will experience a new way of being you which is difficult to even imagine beforehand.

You don’t make a decision on whether or not being a vampire is going to work out for you. What you really decide is whether you want to find out what it’s like to be a vampire. Or, what it’s like to be a mother, or perhaps an emigrant, or a priest, or an astronaut, or even a Martian, or a human Earthling with a fully functional microbiome. A what? I’ll come back to that.

Think about books again. Do you think a book could change you so much that you could call it transformative? To begin with, as the adage goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, we do, but it doesn’t get you far. You can’t know until you read the book if it will change you. You can’t even know if you will like it, no matter how much I tell you that you will. I know that I have ended reviews with a line about how whichever book will make you think differently about whatever subject but I don’t think I’ve ever thought for a moment that a single book could fundamentally change who you are.

I’ve spent January reading, re-reading and mulling over The Psychobiotic Revolution, published this month by National Geographic, written by Scott C. Anderson and  based on the research of John F. Cryan and Ted Dinan at the APC Microbiome Institute here in Cork. John Cryan is a neuroscientist while Ted Dinan is a psychiatrist. Together with other APC researchers, they are the cutting edge.

The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott C. Anderson, John F. Cryan and Ted Dinan

Probiotics, as you are probably aware, are live micro-organisms introduced to the body for their beneficial effects. Psychobiotics, as defined by Cryan and Dinan, are a subclass of probiotics which, when ingested in large amounts, produce beneficial effects psychologically.

Their work is built upon several decades of research into the human microbiome, that is the vast and various community of microscopic organisms living on, and in, you.

The latest ballpark estimate figures that you have something in the region of 30 trillion human cells in your body. You also carry about 39 trillion microbial cells, give or take a billion. There are more bacteria in your gut, Anderson writes, than stars in our galaxy. The microbes in your gut, taken all together, weigh more than your brain. There could easily be a thousand different species of bacteria inside you alone which is a lot when you consider that fewer than 100 species of bacteria have ever been identified as disease-causing in humans. Fewer than one hundred- that’s nothing in the vast scheme of bacterial existence. What’s even more fascinating is that some of those species inside you live nowhere but inside the human gut. You probably even have a species or two which are uniquely yours. The continuation of their kind is completely dependent on your survival. They need you, and you need them too. That’s what they call symbiosis.

And now for the truly mind-blowing statistic: Your human cells carry between 20 and 25 thousand genes but your microbial buddies can beat that number 500 times over. The organisms of your microbiome are busily expressing their genes inside your body and affecting, in the most fundamental way imaginable, what it means to be you. Those genes code for proteins that affect your nutrition, your energy levels and the strength of your immune system. They affect how you smell, how you taste (back to the vampire thing) and who you fancy. They affect the progression of disorders coded by your human genes. They affect your sleep patterns and your appetite. They give you cravings. They affect your mood. They can make you feel anxious or aroused, deflated, depressed, stimulated or scared stiff. They affect the growth and repair of your brain cells. They affect how you think. A significant alteration to your microbiome, then, would make you a different person. No? Yes?

fermenting fartichoke
Fermenting fartichokes.

When I was in college, all the buzz was about HUGO, the project to sequence the human genome. Every week, it seemed, molecular biologists identified a new gene associated with one disease or another. We were confronted with the idea of genetic testing – that a simple blood test might tell us how we would die. Genetic sequencing was a revolution in science. It changed everything. But it also gave the impression of being pretty cut and dried. If you have this gene, you’ll die of that disorder. Environmental factors were bound to have an effect but the genetic contribution of the human microbiome was not, as far as I can recall, ever mentioned.

Now, the human microbiome is the hottest of topics. It’s scorching. Microbiologists all over the world are savouring their newly found cachet as they publish paper after paper and find themselves listed as some of the world’s most influential minds.

Cryan and Dinan’s work focuses on the communication between your gut flora and your brain, something they call the gut-brain axis.

Let me give you just one example. Bifidobacteria are what is known as a keystone species in your gut. They make up a relatively small percentage, about 2%, of your gut flora but they exert a lot of influence. Anderson suggests you think of them as being like lions on the savannah. If they are wiped out, the whole ecosystem is out of whack. Bifidobacteria have a dietary preference for a soluble fibre called inulin which you source by eating lots of plant material. Bifidobacteria digest that inulin, assuming you’ve been eating your veggies, and they produce a fatty acid called buyrate. Butryate does a whole stack of stuff. Butyrate feeds the cells which make up the lining of your gut wall. It dampens inflammation and heals damage. Butyrate also melts through the gut wall, enters your bloodstream and travels to your brain where it stimulates the production of dopamine making you feel chilled out and happy. Butyrate also encourages the growth of brain cells. It makes you think more clearly. Butyrate makes you feel and think better and it makes you crave more of that fine inulin substance and so begins a self-perpetuating cycle of good form and good health.

Crave fibre, you scoff, who am I kidding? Anderson points out that craving sugar is a reliable clue that your gut flora is not what it ought to be. The term for a faulty microbiota, a failure in the symbiotic relationship, is dysbiosis. Other signals of dysbiosis include, but are not confined to, asthma, allergies, autism, IBS, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, persistent diarrhoea, constipation or flatulence, diabetes, lack of drive, lack of focus, anxiety, panic attacks, withdrawal from society or depression. Anderson lists some possible causes of dysbiosis: infection, inflammation, chronic stress, overuse of painkillers, overuse of antibiotics, excessive alcohol, autoimmune disorders, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, over-eating, poor diet and lack of exercise.

Anderson enthusiastically explores the butyrate cycle as well as providing an overview of some of the other ways your gut flora communicates with your brain. It’s scientifically detailed but never less than fascinating. He describes the development of your microbiome from conception all the way through to the moments following your demise. He describes the variations in your microbiome in the different parts of your body and along the length of your digestive sytem, from your gum line to your rear end. He explains why your microbiome is largely inherited from your mother making this a matrilineal society. He details the incredible advantages bestowed upon breast-fed babies and why the diet of a toddler up to the age of two is of crucial importance. He explains why so many people eating a ‘western’ diet of junk food, loaded with sugar, feel sluggish, sick, anxious or depressed. He explores the effectiveness of probiotic supplements on the market today, offers some advice on which brands have potential for alleviating which digestive disorders and which may have psychobiotic effects. He provides guidelines on which foods are most effective in nurturing a healthy, balanced, physically beneficial and mood-enhancing gut flora, foods termed prebiotics. He does all this in an accessible and entertaining style.

Your microbiome has a remarkable and, until now, sorely underestimated degree of control over your mind. But ultimately, you are the boss of them. You control what you eat and what you eat changes everything. As Anderson puts it, you can change your microbiome overnight, just by changing what you eat.

If you imagine your self to be a bundle of expressed genes, and accept that you can alter a significant portion of that bundle, you might just be holding the key to a fundamentally transformative experience. Once you read Anderson’s book, you will have information which you can’t really get anywhere else (unless you feel like ploughing through 400 scientific publications), information which could radically alter your life, information which could change you to such a degree that you will, with hindsight, look back and say that you were a different person before you read this book.

Because, you see, once you have that information, it’s difficult to ignore it, which brings me full circle.

‘Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.’
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale.

If Atwood’s book could change how you think about the experience of being a woman, and Laurie Paul’s book could change how you think about change, The Psychobiotic Revolution could change how you think.

The only problem is that you can’t know until you read it how it is going to change you, regardless of how much I try to convince you. You have to decide whether you want to find out what it might be like to be that human with a microscopic, symbiotic army marching to your tune. There can be no going back.

Let me know what you decide.

 

Full disclosure:
I am a graduate of the Microbiology Department of UCC.
Prof. Ted Dinan sent me an e-copy of The Psychobiotic Revolution in anticipation of an honest review.
Prof. Laurie Paul is my friend.

 

27 thoughts on “The Psychobiotic Revolution and Transformative Experience.

  1. Oh my god, Lynda! There you are over in Cork reading and writing about the amazing microbiome. Here I am in Kent, having just proofread a book that touched on the gut-brain, microbiome situation and having just ordered ‘The Clever Guts Diet’ by Dr Michael Mosley (because I obvs didn’t know about your friend Prof. Paul’s book). How weird is that?! This whole thing FASCINATES me. If only we could meet up for coffee and a long chat 🙂 I’m going to look out for this book. Sounds brilliant. Thank you (again). x

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  2. I have had a keen interest in the microbiome for years. One of my favourite podcasts is “This Week in Microbiology”, a show which frequently talks about many aspects of the microbiome. I did a quick Pubmed search and found about a trillion articles I now want to read, and of course the book you are discussing here. Thanks for a thought provoking and interesting post. I am keen to find out more about the fermenting fartichokes, once they are ready to be eaten.

    P.S. I am also a microbiology graduate but specialised in molecular parasitology thereafter

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    1. Hi Christina, thanks for reading. Yes, the number of papers being published is phenomenal. The fermented fartichokes are delicious, my favourite of all the lactic ferments we’ve tried. Fermentation seems, thank God, to take the, ahem, gas out of them. It’s not easy to source Jerusalem artichokes here so I’ve planted some for next year. I shall keep you posted.

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  3. Ok – so thank God you made that disclosure in the end because I was blown away with your knowledge and understanding of all of this! I must investigate more….

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  4. You’ve convinced me to buy the book. Your post was timely, as I’m currently reading The Diet Myth, which touches frequently on the microbiome. It’s all quite fascinating! I hope my non-science mind is able to wade through this book without my eyes crossing. 🙂

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  5. Once again we are spookily on the same page. I’m re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale (for the third time) and just the other day put Atwood’s “ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance; you have to work at it” onto my running list of notable quotes…

    Nutrition has been a special interest of mine for many years now, and my go-to site (nutritionfacts.org, which promotes a whole foods plant based diet) has reported quite a lot about the ways your microbiome is affected by food, and the repercussions that can have on health. It sounds like there is WAY more to it than just that though, and I’m very interested in looking into this book! (Although it may just make me even more angry about Big Food and the far-reaching effects their products have on an unsuspecting population 😦 .)

    (It’s also sounding like you read Twilight! Yes?)

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    1. It’s a fine quotation, isn’t it? I shall definitely take a look at that website. The message from this book is that individuals must make their own choices. If no-one buys sugary cereal, no-one will sell it. Information is the key.
      I haven’t read Twilight. Should I? My cultural exploration of vampires is limited to Keifer Sutherland in The Lost Boys and Gary Oldman, fabulous, as Dracula.

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      1. “If no-one buys sugary cereal, no-one will sell it.” — YES! to this.

        My question regarding Twilight was posed with 95% certainty that you had NOT read it (because your eldest daughter would have been too young when Twilight was all the rage), and with 5% whispered, conspiratorial, guilty, “et tu”?!
        My daughter (at the time) was the perfect age to jump on the Twilight bandwagon, and because I was reading many of the same books she did, I also read it. (Ahem. The whole series, in fact.) I had prepared myself to HATE it, but found instead that I thoroughly enjoyed it! Do I think you should read it? No. (Not unless you’re feeling a delayed sense of FOMO about the whole Team Edward/Team Jacob thing.) However, Meyer’s other book, The Host, IS one you just might enjoy. It’s a dystopian/sci-fi type book with a concept that I simply loved, one that got me thinking very deeply about things like “what is consciousness” and what exactly is it that makes a person a person? (She did get way too long-winded in parts, making me wonder where her editor was, but this is a book I STILL think about, even though it’s been years since I read it.)

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    1. I’m delighted. This book is the most fascinating I’ve read in years, possibly ever. I’ve not braved having my microbiome scientifically assessed but I feel great in myself and I have lost 2 Kg since Christmas.

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  6. Lovely post and pretty bloody fascinating. And it supports an increase in my production of weird fermented kimchi-based foods, so that’s all to the good. I’m no microbiologist, but we all know how certain foods have a detrimental effect on our mental wellbeing and that others are very positive, so the link between gut and brain health is very exciting

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    1. Thank you. I come downstairs every morning now to a kitchen which is audibly fizzing with life! It’s exciting, isn’t it? What sort of kimchi do you make. Our weirdest so far has been rhubarb!

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      1. So far only cabbage-based. But I will try rhubarb once it comes up this year and am open to any ideas, however odd-sounding. I just love foods that fizz and make bubbles, and they’re so much fun to make

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  7. I’m so intrigued with this concept of the influence of gut bacteria on our health and even more so that these bacteria might or do affect our brains. As many of the population are living longer, it’s so important to know how to extend quality of life into old age. I’ve just returned ‘The Diet Myth’ to the library (having renewed it to the max) so your review is perfect timing. I’ve ordered both The Psychobiotic Revolution and Transformative Experience – thanks for bringing these books to my attention.

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  8. I think my comment was lost before, but I just wanted to say what a huge fan I am of fermented food. I wrote a piece for someone about it a while back and I make the odd thing from time to time, but you’ve inspired me to make more. I am completely convinced of its holistic health value, but it’s really great to learn more about the relationship between gut bacteria and everything else.

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